The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Of the 19 longlisted 2009 Booker and Giller Prize titles that I have now read, Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report is without question the most innovative in concept and form. While the execution does have its problems, the bonus points I give the author for taking that chance — plus the fact that I found it an intriguing read — earn it a place on my personal Giller shortlist. I do suspect the Real jury may take a somewhat stricter view.

The Incident Report is in fact 144 Incident Reports (in a 196-page book) from the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library. Allan Gardens (and its well-known conservatory, which does have a role in the book) is located in a marginal part of downtown Toronto and is home to some pretty marginal people. Each time there is an incident at the library, the librarian in charge (Miriam Gordon, age 35, formerly a “Clerical” but recently upgraded to “Public Service Assistant”) is required to fill out and file a report — Baillie helpfully provides a copy of the actual form at the front of the book, although she wisely doesn’t adhere to it. Here are a couple of samples:

Incident Report 4

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her for the gift.

Incident Report 11

At 12:30 this afternoon, a female patron, grey-haired and well-dressed, entered the library, pushing a male patron, equally respectable, in his wheelchair. She took him right up to the shelves. He pointed to the books he wanted. She lifted down the volumes, filled the cloth sack that hung from the back of his chair, then wheeled both him and his selection over to the circulation desk.

There the man and the woman switched places, the man getting out of his wheelchair. She sat down. He unloaded the sack of books, checked them out, packed them in again and wheeled her through the exit, seemingly without effort. As he pushed, she hummed a little tune of contentment.

giller avatarNone of these perpetrators ever acquire a real name in the book, but many have “librarian” names — Sheep Woman, Suitcase Man, Wire Stripper Man, Morality Man, to name just a few. A number are library regulars and appear more than once, many show up only for one incident.

Martha Baillie knows whereof she writes — a Toronto native, she has worked part-time in that city’s public library system for more than 20 years. She has also published three previous novels (none of which I have read) and her poems have appeared in numerous Canadian literary publications. She not only has a way with words, she is a perceptive observer.

It is at this point that I should declare a personal conflict of interest regarding this novel. For the first 14 years of my journalism career, The Calgary Herald was located in the centre of downtown Calgary (only three blocks from the library, as it happens). Like the library, the newspaper was a magnet for the “lost souls” that wander around ever urban centre and they would often drop by the newsroom to try to generate interest in their story — some regularly, others occasionally, some only once. Many were obviously not well and others were more than annoying, but some were out-and-out interesting. Baillie includes examples of each kind.

The conceit of an actual incident report cannot be maintained for the whole book and the author does not attempt it. While these oddball characters continue to show up throughout the novel, Baillie uses other reports to develop and ruminate on a set of story lines that supply a structure for the book.

The most interesting is the mysterious person who thinks he is Rigoletto (from the opera) and that Miriam is his daughter, Gilda. For those who don’t know the opera, Rigoletto is tricked into kidnapping Gilda for the lascivious Duke, whom she does already know and loves. Rigoletto hires a murderer to kill the Duke, Gilda gets wind of the plot and inserts herself in the Duke’s place. As Rigoletto is unwrapping her body to celebrate his revenge, the Duke can be heard in the background singing “la donna e mobile”.

The library Rigoletto never reveals himself but does leave a number of notes and opera scores around the facility for discovery. While Miriam is initially fearful for herself and appropriate authorities are alerted, she eventually realizes that whoever Rigoletto is he views himself as her protector from unseen forces that apparently threaten her. It is no spoiler to say that she never does discover who the real person is.

Less successful is the story line of Miriam’s affair with Janko, a refugee Slovenian fresco painter now driving taxi while searching for better opportunities — again, every city has similar versions of taxi drivers. Despite having her heart broken at age 18 and swearing to never fall in love again, they become lovers. In a book where the absurd is normal, I’m afraid the affair did stretch the envelope perhaps just a bit too much.

There are a couple of other continuing story lines — staff relations at the branch, Miriam’s childhood history — that help to put substance to the book and Miriam’s personal story. More than anything else, however, it consists of 144 vignettes that through location and personality establish an intriguing and interesting picture of what happens at a community institution. Strange as some of the incidents are, there is a consistent air of realism to the whole project.

Miriam certainly becomes a real person:

Incdent Report 5

In the library workroom, a schedule hangs from two clips. As always, the day has been divided into compartments, as if it were a train about to set out on a well-planned voyage along shining rails. My initials have been pencilled into many of the little boxes that correspond to each hour between 9 AM and 8:30 PM. We, the staff, don’t always greet the public with enthusiasm. We don’t feel, every one of us without fail, that we are travelling out, embarked upon an adventure, and yet there we are, inscibed in our little boxes, as if the day were pulled by a solid locomotive.

Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear — small as a cherry stone, it cracks open behind my breastbone. I don’t want the fruit. With each quick breath the fear grows, a rustling of leaves in the cavity of my chest. But soon I’ve washed, dressed, drunk a cup of tea, eaten a piece of toast, and am on my way to work, riding my bicycle in the prescribed direction.

It is hard to say how much my recent Prize reading influenced my reaction to this book (both Booker and Giller have a lot of wordy traditional historical novels this year). I was delighted to see an author take risks and deliver on them — while she was not totally successful the result was more than good enough for me. And while I would be surprised to see this book winning the Giller, I would love to see it on the shortlist. I have a feeling the Martha Baillie would put her $5,000 shortlist prize to very good use.

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23 Responses to “The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie”

  1. Kerry Says:

    Outstanding review, Kevin. This book sounds extremely interesting. As you point out, so many Booker and Giller books were “wordy traditional historical novels”, a category that rarely generates any excitement from me. This book really sounds like a breath of fresh air. Now I am conflicted regarding my favorite. Actually, I think I am not.

    Sorry, Valmiki’s Daughter. I have a new Giller fave to support. But that doesn’t mean I won’t read you…

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think anyone who has ever been in a job where the general public can just wander in will find this book well worth the reading time. I’ll be very interested in what my opinion is a few weeks down the road: It was certainly a good immediate read — does it land solidly enough in memory to make it that good in the longer term?

  3. Arthur from Montreal Says:

    Another great review. Remarkable how fast you work. I’m very much looking forward to your piece on The Heart Specialist.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Wow.

    That sounds fascinating, and I doubt I’d ever have heard of it but for the prize. Thank you very much Kevin, I’ll be following this one up.

    Like you, I take a degree of delight in seeing an author take risks and largely succeed. This sounds quite experimental, yet without becoming unreadable.

    Have you read What was Lost? by the way? That too is a recent novel dealing in part with the experience of working with the public, though there in the context of a record store in a shopping mall.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I don’t thinnk I would have heard of it either if not for the Giller and it would have been my loss. You might be waiting a while — Baillie’s Canadian publisher is a small house (Pedlar Press) and I don’t know if this one has the mass appeal legs to find a UK one. I think that would be too bad — it is a most enjoyable book, not just for the author’s risks. I’ve heard of What Was Lost and can see the similarities. Not just in the story line, but in the way it made several longlists and then slid to the side. I’ll try to find the time to give it a shot.

  6. workingwords100 Says:

    I thought New Orleans had cornered the market on attracting the crazies of North America. Glad to know that there are cities where things like this happen.

    I need to hunt down a copy of this work and maybe nominate it for the 2011 International Fiction Book Group of New Orleans.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isobel: I think librarians in cities everywhere would find a lot of familiar characters in this book.

  8. Becca Says:

    As a former library “clerical” I can attest to the types of characters in this book. The story itself is lovely, and the format quite interesting. I read this in one night, and it’s a good thing, because there is a long list of librarians and “Clerical”s interested in reading it next. Shame it didn’t make it to the Giller Shortlist, but hopefully its presence on the longlist has brought it the attention it deserves.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Becca: Thanks for your comment — I think anyone who has ever had to deal with the public on an “open door” basis will find that Ms. Baillie has done a very good job of capturing them, and producing a fine story in the bargain. I am not surprised that there is a lineup to read it — I hope they all find it as enjoyable as you and I did.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m placing an order today Kevin, and this will be in it.

    I’m looking forward to it actually. It’s on slightly slower delivery than most, but that’s unsurprising and it should be worth waiting for.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Great to be reminded of this one, Max. It is an entertaining and amusing read (as opposed to great serious book) — excellent train reading, I would say.

  12. Martha Baillie Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    In October 2009, when I returned from a canoe trip to learn that The Incident Report had not made the giant leap from the Giller long list to the short list, my daughter directed me to your review, which very effectively took the edge off my disappointment and heartened me considerably. All this time later, I’d like to thank you. It was so good to feel the risks I’d taken were recognized as such and appreciated; to read your articulate, thoughtful response to my work, and to know I’d given a reader such as you pleasure delighted me. I now and then drop by your blog and always find it an engaging place to be. I read with excitement that you are also an admirer of Damon Galgut’s work!! Have just read Coetzee’s Summertime. Coetzee I can read over and over again, always in a state of wonder at his skill.
    Are authors meant to respond to reviews on blogs? Am I breaking an unspoken rule? :)
    In my new novel, I am taking even greater risks than last time; it is good to know that you are out there. The readers who post comments on your blog are also a source of encouragement to me.
    Regards,

    Martha Baillie

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Martha: Authors are more than welcome to leave comments, particularly when they are such generous ones. I remember your novel well (and have convinced a few others to read it) and I certainly look forward to your next one. Please keep in touch.

  14. Martha Baillie Says:

    Kevin,

    Thank you for recommending my work to others. You seem to have created a very lively community of readers. I will try to keep in touch.
    Martha

  15. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin absolutely convinced me to buy a copy. I’m distinctly looking forward to reading it. This is oddly timely actually as it’s getting near the top of my lengthy tbr (to be read) pile.

  16. Martha Baillie Says:

    Hi Max,

    I’m delighted to hear that the Incident Report has made its way across the vast ocean. How good of you to pay for its passage. And now it is ascending a mountain of literature, of carefully selected works…
    Miriam and I thank you for these adventures.
    Let me know what you think of the novel. I am prepared to receive your disappointment graciously!

    Cheers,
    Martha

  17. Max Cairnduff Says:

    You make it sound so civilised, my tbr pile, rather than the monument to hope exceeding experience that it is.

    That said, I no longer buy books faster than I read them.

    I actually end up writing more about books I don’t like than those I do. It’s a desire to be fair I think. I’ve no reason to believe that will apply to yours though. I’m looking forward to it.

  18. Martha Baillie Says:

    “A monument to hope exceeding experience,” what a lovely description to come upon at the start of my writing day, of any day. thank you.
    And do you ever buy a book you suspect you won’t make time to read and give it to someone else, in the hope they’ll read it for you, offering you a vicarious engagement with the work? I just came upon Susan Sontag’s , “Regarding the Pain of Others,” which I bought and gave to someone years ago so as not to have to read it myself. Having now picked it up, som many years later, am half way through it and recommend it highly…but of course a wobbling monument to hope already resides in your home.
    Martha

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max does have an ear for the descriptive phrase, doesn’t he? If he ever switches his law career to litigation, judges and juries are in for a treat.

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I never buy books for others, for fear they may buy them for me. It’s always terribly hard to judge what someone else might wish to read.

    The Sontag is an interesting one. She’s an author I’ve noted but not read, and some of her works look perhaps too painful too easily read.

    Kevin, very kind, thanks.

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin,

    I just thought I’d drop by to say I finally read this, last week. I hugely enjoyed it, it was very much my sort of book so thanks for the review and recommendation. I doubt I’ll get to write it up at mine for about a month or so given my current reviewing backlog, but I absolutely loved it. The Janko storyline worked better for me I think than it did for you.

    I’m going to look into what else she’s written. Also, it’s physically beautiful, the sheer quality of the paper alone is very high. Martha’s publisher did her proud.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for bringing this up to the top of the comment list again after three years of quiet. I remember aspects of the book very well — including the high quality physical properties of the book. And I am delighted that you found it to be an enjoyable read.

      I had forgotten that Ms Baillie had joined the conversation here. As for other work, the novel she mentions in comments has not yet appeared and I confess that I have not chased down any of her previous books.

  22. Max Cairnduff Says:

    According to her website it’s due out in September this year, so I suspect it took a little longer to put together than she hoped.

    I’ll check it out when it appears – her earlier books don’t appear to be available in the UK unfortunately.

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